Defense against Help: Explaining Canada-U.S. Security Relations

By Barry, Donald; Bratt, Duane | American Review of Canadian Studies, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Defense against Help: Explaining Canada-U.S. Security Relations


Barry, Donald, Bratt, Duane, American Review of Canadian Studies


A core concept in international relations theory, especially among realists, is that to survive in an anarchical world, states must rely on self-help. As John Mearsheimer explains,

  [S]tates cannot depend on others for their own security. Each state
  tends to see itself as vulnerable and alone, and therefore it aims to
  provide for its own survival.... This emphasis on self-help does not
  preclude states from forming alliances. But alliances are only
  temporary marriages of convenience: today's alliance partner might be
  tomorrow's enemy, and today's enemy might be tomorrow's alliance
  partner. (1)

"Self-help" may apply to great powers, but it loses its explanatory force when extended to smaller states. As Robert Rothstein points out, lesser states are not simply "Great Powers writ small." (2) John Holmes observes that "the foreign policy ... of a middle power is generically different from that of a great power, let alone a superpower." (3) Small states, Rothstein adds, "think and act differently, and any analysis which fails to take that fact into account is bound to be simplistic and inadequate." (4) What sets lesser states apart from their great-power counterparts is "that they cannot obtain security primarily by the use of their own resources and that they have to rely fundamentally on outside help to maintain their independence." (5)

It is clear that self-help does not reflect Canada's security reality. Canada shares a continent with its superpower neighbor, the United States, against which war is inconceivable. In fact, the United States serves as a powerful deterrent to external threats to Canada's safety. But while Canada relies on American power for its protection, the United States also depends on Canada--with its crucial land, air, and maritime approaches--for its own safety. In short, Canada-U.S. security is interdependent. It follows that Canada cannot ignore U.S. safety requirements, nor can Canada easily isolate itself from the consequences of American security decisions. Canada, therefore, participates in North American defense not only to deter possible external threats but also "to ensure national control over the Canadian territory" in the face of possible demands from the United States. (6) Canada does so through "defense against help," a strategy articulated by Nils Orvik, by which a mid- or small-sized state maintains a sufficient level of defense unilaterally, or in cooperation with a large state that is committed to its safety, to avoid "unwanted help" from the large state. (7)

Defining Defense Against Help

In Canada, defense against help is a policy response to that nation's somewhat unconventional "security dilemma," the essence of which is that the United States, in the process of guaranteeing Canada's safety, could itself become a security threat. If Canada were to become a strategic liability to the United States through military weakness or otherwise, Washington could take any measures deemed necessary for its own defense, regardless of Ottawa's preferences. (8) Moreover, if Canada failed to contribute to North American defense, Ottawa would forfeit opportunities to affect U.S. strategic policy decisions on which Canada's safety ultimately depends.

The significance of the defense against help strategy in Canadian policy is evident in what can be called the U.S.-Canada "security bargain," the elements of which were first publicly expressed in statements exchanged between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King in 1938. These statements, which still constitute the core of U.S.-Canada strategic obligations, reveal both similarities and differences in the two countries' priorities and preoccupations. President Roosevelt expressly committed the United States to the defense of Canada, giving the assurance "that the people of the United States will not stand idly by if domination of Canadian soil is threatened by any other empire.

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